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Dyke, Greg (1947-)

Executive, Presenter

Main image of Dyke, Greg (1947-)

Greg Dyke once joked that Saddam Hussein had more chance of running the BBC than he did. For 20 years he has enjoyed a successful career as an energetic and commercially aggressive broadcasting executive, with a reputation for understanding what the television audience wanted, then suddenly, in 1999, the opportunity for running the BBC presented itself.

He was born on 20 May 1947, educated at Hayes Grammar School and later at York University, where he read Politics. Before that, however, after a brief stint as a trainee manager at Marks and Spencer, he trained as a reporter for the Hillingdon Mirror, becoming chief reporter within eight months before moving to the Slough Evening Mail. During these years he developed his entrepreneurial skill, selling stories on to the 'nationals'. At the same time he found he had a taste for socialist politics. As a champion for his fellow workers he succeeded in getting a review of their earnings. Some years later, a little disillusioned with tabloid reporting, he tried and failed to move to the BBC as a reporter for Radio Teesside.

At this point he decided on York University, where he threw himself into union politics and became part of a collective which produced a newly styled, psychedelic 'underground' student magazine, Nouse. As an older student with experience of work, he was a more mainstream Labour supporter than the far left students of the early '70s. Graduating in 1974, he covered rural affairs for the Newcastle Journal, but by 1976 he was back in London, working for Wandsworth Community Relations Council. Dyke found the politics of the job difficult and left a year later to become the Labour candidate for the Greater London Council constituency of Putney. Defeated, the 30 year-old Dyke was forced to rethink his career.

Applying for a researcher post on London Weekend Television's weekly current affairs programme, Weekend World (ITV, 1972-88), he was considered at the time unsuitable for this scholarly programme, but was hired instead for the regional current affairs show The London Programme (ITV, 1975-), where he was able to use his knowledge of local politics. But a year later he was a producer on Weekend World, developing a story-based approach in place of its usual analytical style. By 1979 Dyke had helped to lead the successful 11-week ITV strike at LWT. Soon after, as deputy editor of The London Programme, he developed a reputation for instinctively understanding the mass audience and delivering good populist stories. Although a rather late starter in television, by 1981 he was propelled into the editor's job on a new live show, The Six O'Clock Show (ITV, 1982-89), which was to combine news from the region with light short film reports. After early teething problems, the programme became LWT's most highly-rated show.

Dyke began to climb the executive ladder in earnest in 1983, when he was persuaded to join the ailing TV-am as editor-in-chief. The breakfast broadcaster had won its franchise with five celebrity presenters and its opening programmes were seen as rather 'high-brow'. With a large production staff and too few viewers, the station had no chance of making a profit. Dyke's popularising approach was thought to be the only way to save the station. He tackled its many problems by famously promoting the show's puppet, Roland Rat; bringing in more homely presenters, Anne Diamond and Nick Owen; cutting staff and reducing programming costs. In the summer of that year the programme was becoming more popular than the BBC's Breakfast Time.

When, in 1984, the station's owners brought in Bruce Gyngell as the new chief executive to move the company into profit, staff were perplexed by this Australian's strange style, with his passion for the 'power of pink'. Greg Dyke found Gyngell's interference in programmes unacceptable and took up a timely offer to become director of programmes at TVS. The south-east ITV franchise was an advertising-rich station, but had an ambition to contribute more programmes to the ITV network, which was dominated and controlled at this time by the 'Big Five' companies: Granada, Thames, LWT, Central and Yorkshire.

Having consolidated his reputation and gained business experience at TVS, Dyke was a natural choice for the post of director of programmes at LWT when the incumbent, John Birt, became Deputy Director General at the BBC in March 1987. At this time the Thatcher government wanted to tackle the power and wealth of the ITV companies and adopt the 1986 Peacock Committee recommendation to auction the franchises and give greater access to independent companies. Therefore one of Dyke's first jobs was radically to downsize the company and sweep away some of the generous terms and conditions of service for staff. Meanwhile, he took on the role of Head of ITV Sport, paying £11million to secure live and exclusive sport for the channel, with the idea that there would be a football super-league. Not only was the BBC excluded from the deal, but the new cable and satellite services were also prevented from using football as a 'driver' for customer take-up of services.

Amid tensions with the large northern franchise, Granada, Dyke asserted that the ITV schedule needed to modernise and broaden its appeal from its largely older and more downmarket audience. He moved rapidly to increase drama output and find more up-to-date entertainment shows, but was barred by the regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), from dropping the religious programming slot on Sunday.

When Brian Tesler, the managing director of LWT, retired in 1989, Dyke was promoted and sent on a three-month course at the Harvard Business School in Boston to fine tune his business management skills. LWT, meanwhile, prepared for the ITV auction and tied in key staff with share offers, known later as 'golden handcuffs'. Some executives, including Dyke, became multi-millionaires when the new licence was secured, causing widespread ill feeling within the company. LWT kept its franchise in 1991 with a surprisingly low bid of £7.58 million; its rival, London Independent Broadcasting, had failed the quality threshold. The victory was a double one, as Dyke, with partners Vis News, Disney, Broadcast Communications and Scottish TV, led a successful bid for the breakfast time franchise, with Sunrise TV (later renamed GMTV). Unlike the slimline, profitable LWT, however, GMTV was crippled by large annual franchise payments (£34.61 million), until these were reduced by the new regulatory body, the Independent Television Commission (ITC).

Dyke became chairman of the ITV Council, group chief executive at LWT and, by 1993, chairman of GMTV. Having this time succeeded in removing the 'God slot' from ITV, Dyke tried to move News at Ten from its regular place in the schedule, but was thwarted by furious MPs and the National Heritage Select Committee. He also failed in his negotiations for football rights when, having rejected an alliance with Sky TV, the satellite station joined forces with the BBC and outbid ITV.

In 1993, Granada Television, led by Gerry Robinson, launched a hostile bid for LWT. When the National Heritage Secretary relaxed the ownership rules to allow a company to own two franchises, irrespective of size, Granada outmanoeuvred LWT and persuaded its institutional shareholders of the value of accepting a takeover bid. Dyke resigned and, while unemployed, delivered the 1994 MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

The following year, while working as an interviewer on Channel Four's sports series, On the Line, Dyke became chairman and chief executive of Pearson Television, part of a group which included the Financial Times and Penguin Books. Pearson had taken over Thames TV, which had lost its ITV franchise to Carlton, and there were hopes that Dyke would build it into a large multimedia company. With the Thames back-catalogue, and with investments in UK Gold and UK Living, Dyke went on to buy Grundy Television, producer of Neighbours, and All-American, owner of Baywatch and The Price is Right. Although he was reputed to feel out of the mainstream at Pearson, he built the company into the biggest non-US independent production company in the world, with a huge slate of TV drama and entertainment. By the autumn of 1995 he had also chaired a successful bid, with Lord Hollick's United Media group, for the franchise to run the new Channel Five. It was a low-budget operation, with a programme schedule which was 'stripped and stranded', a nightly feature film timed at 9pm to compete with News at Ten and, more contentiously, followed by late night programmes described as 'soft porn'.

During these years, Dyke became a director of Manchester United Football Club and was the sole board member to oppose a takeover bid from Sky TV, which was subsequently rejected by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. In 1998 he became a Fellow of the Royal Television Society and in 2002 a Fellow of the National Film and Television School. He maintained a commitment to the Labour Party, donating more than £50,000 to help fund Tony Blair's landslide victory in May 1997. Soon after, Dyke chaired a committee to review the National Health Service's Patients' Charter. These links with the Labour Party were to make his application in 1999 for the BBC's Director General post, vacated by John Birt, highly controversial. The Times, in particular, attacked his support of Labour and his populist programming strategies. But after several days of interviews and a month's deliberation, the BBC board, led by Christopher Bland, who had been responsible for his appointment at LWT, chose Greg Dyke.

He became Director General in January 2000, having joined the previous year as Deputy Director General and Director General Designate. It was a popular appointment with staff, and he significantly raised morale, which had suffered in the Birt years. He undertook to reorganise the complex internal market structure with the aim of putting him closer to programme makers and ensuring that more of the BBC's income was spent on programmes rather than running the organisation. The BBC became more collaborative and overhead expenditure fell significantly. In addition, he made a commitment to use digital technology to provide new educational opportunities and to improve the cultural diversity of the workforce and BBC programmes. Freeview, the set-top box that delivered digital services free and did much to encourage digital take-up, was one of Dyke's great successes. During this period BBC1 became Britain's most popular channel and BBC Radio gained more listeners than its commercial rivals, although critics accused him of 'dumbing down'. At the same time, he supported investigative journalism like The Secret Policeman (tx. 21/10/2003), which he described as the most important programme during his four years as Director General.

However, his departure from the BBC was a dramatic one, and it has somewhat overshadowed his achievements. The governors accepted Dyke's resignation on 29th January 2004 - a day after that of the chairman, Gavyn Davies - after heavy criticism of the BBC in the Hutton Report. The Hutton Inquiry investigated the circumstances surrounding the suicide of government weapons expert Dr David Kelly, the source of a BBC radio story alleging that the Government had 'sexed up' the case for war against Iraq. The report described the BBC as 'defective' in ensuring its news stories were accurate. The publication of the Report prompted what was arguably the biggest crisis in the corporation's history. Dyke had been passionate in his defence of independent BBC journalism but was criticised in his role as editor-in-chief. BBC staff, however, felt that he had shouldered too much blame, and hundreds appeared outside Broadcasting House and in BBC centres across the country protesting at the unfairness of his departure.

In the book Inside Story, published in September 2004, Dyke gives his account of the BBC's relations with the Government, the behaviour of the BBC governors and the events surrounding the Hutton Inquiry. In August 2004 he became Chancellor of York University.

Horrie, Chris and Clarke, Steve, Citizen Greg: the extraordinary story of Greg Dyke and how he captured the BBC, (Simon and Schuster UK Ltd, 2000)
Cozens, Claire and O'Carroll, Lisa, 'The Man Who Came in from the Cold', The Guardian, 29 January 2004
Deans, Jason and Jeffery, Simon, ' Hutton Inquiry Witnesses: Greg Dyke, BBC Director General, His Role', The Guardian, 21 January 2004
'Hutton: on Dyke and Sambrook', The Guardian, 28 January 2004
'Full Text of Greg Dyke's Statement', The Guardian, 28 January 2004
'Greg Dyke Should Have Known Better', The Daily Telegraph, filed 2 February 2004

Ann Bloss

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